Pope Benedict XVI’s The Infancy Narratives present us with five extraordinary models of faith, from whom we have much to learn and emulate on our own journeys towards God.
These five figures of faith are: Mary, St. Joseph, Anna, Simeon, and Zechariah.
Each has something different and important to teach us about trusting
in God’s promises, especially in those times when He seems so distant
and his ways seem so far beyond our ability to comprehend them.
Mary at the Annunciation: Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ,
Romans 10:17 says. In an essay written in the 1980s by the future Pope
Benedict XVI, Mary was so attentive to the word of God that it comes to
define her whole person: “Having become pure hearing, she receives the
Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.” In this, Mary is the
prototype of all Christians who hear the good news and take it to heart.
This is something that is done through the exercise of her free
will—it is an obedience of love and faith, not resignation to an
impersonal fate or mere duty to destiny. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux
said in a sermon on the Annunciation, the angel waits for Mary’s
response, her “yes” to the Word, along with the heavens and the earth:
“We too, O Lady, we who are weighed down by the sentence of
condemnation, wait for the word of pity. … The whole world prostrate at
your knees, waits for your consent; and not without reason; since upon
your lips hangs the consolation of the unhappy, the redemption of the
captives, the freedom of the condemned; in fine, the safety of the
children of Adam, of the whole human race.”
We know how Mary responded. She gave yet total and unconditional
surrender to the Word of God. The question is: how will we respond to
God’s knock at the door to our hearts?
Mary after the Annunciation: Much of the focus on
the Annunciation account has focused on Mary’s response in the moment.
But what about afterwards? It took great faith not only to welcome the
Word into her heart, but to commit to living it out in the hours, days,
and years ahead, as Pope Benedict writes in his new book on the Infancy
Narratives. “The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in
which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there
alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are
no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that
leads through many dark moments.” For Mary, this faith in the “luminous
darkness of God’s inscrutable ways” takes her all the way to the Cross.
As the Pope writes, “Jesus’ divine mission bursts through the boundaries
of all human criteria and repeatedly becomes, in human terms, a dark
mystery.” In other words: “The closer one comes to Jesus, the more one
is drawn into the mystery of his Passion.”
Once again, Mary’s example becomes a challenge to us: Are we too
willing to follow Christ all the way to the Cross? Are we prepared to
surrender our worldly attachments, our temporal cares, our sighs and
sorrows, our pride and our pleasures to Christ? Are we willing to bear
the crosses that he has given to us?
Zechariah and doubt: If anything, Zechariah at first
is a negative model of faith—an example of how not to respond to the
good news. After hearing that is aged and barren wife Elizabeth will
have a child, Zechariah responds with doubt instead of faith: How shall I know this?
For his disbelief, he is stricken temporarily mute. The irony is that
this is what Zechariah—a priest who was offering incense in the temple
at the moment of his annunciation—apparently had been praying for,
according to the account of Luke. As the angel said: Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.
So perhaps his story is less a case study in pure doubt than a
cautionary tale in making half-hearted prayers—in going through the
motions, only half-believing that God will answer.
It’s no coincidence that the narrative almost immediately moves onto
the Annunciation to Mary, who responded with faith. Now, the attentive
reader may object that she too appears to respond in doubt when she
asks, How can this be? But this isn’t an expression of doubt,
it’s a question posed from the perspective of faith, according to St.
Ambrose: “He [Zechariah] refuses to believe that which he says he does
not know, and seeks, as it were, still further authority for belief. She
avows herself willing to do that which she doubts not will be done, but
how, she is anxious to know.”
Technically, Zechariah’s sin was seeking knowledge in order that he
might believe. In a way, this is the original sin all over
again—reaching for knowledge rather than resting faithfully in God. It
also calls to mind’s Augustine’s statement that he believed in order to
understand: understanding, which is true knowledge, follows from faith.
Zechariah’s error was in trying to reverse that order.
Of course, the story of Zechariah is one that ultimately has a happy
ending. His mutism is lifted with the Birth of John the Baptist and a
chastised Zechariah expresses a deeper faith in God as a result. The old
priest breaks out into a spontaneous canticle of praise, which
concludes with these words: Through the bottomless mercy of our God,
one born on high will visit us to give light to those who walk in
darkness, who live in the shadow of death; to lead our feet in the path
Simeon, waiting for God: Simeon
appears in the second chapter of Luke as a figure that stands in marked
contrast to the other old man of the Infancy Narratives, Zechariah.
Both are described as righteous, but, in Simeon’s case, he is also
“devout,” a word which could be literally translated as aggressively pious:
his was a faith and devotion that issued forth in action, even as he
waited for God to act. Whereas Zechariah enters the temple by lot,
Simeon came in the Spirit into the temple, according to Luke.
His devotional habits were not rote acts, but emerged out of a heartfelt
piety. When he finally sees Jesus and holds him in his arms, Simeon
cries out: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.
When Simeon cries out with joy, it really is the voice of Old Testament
Israel that speaks—the nation that had been waiting so long for the
Word, the nation that had been hoping against despair for its salvation.
Anna, ‘the model of a truly devout person’: The
prophetess Anna, like Simeon, has been waiting to see the salvation of
Israel. Her vigil, however, is more acutely temple-centered: She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
Anna appears as a minor character in the story, but Pope Benedict, in
his new book, sees her as an important and powerful figure of faith:
“She is the model of the truly devout person. She is quite simply at
home in the Temple. She lives with God and for God, body and soul. So
she is truly a spirit-filled woman, a prophetess. Because she spends her
life in the Temple—in adoration—she is there at the hour of Jesus’
St. Joseph, the just man: Mary’s husband is
portrayed in Benedict’s new book as the embodiment of the Old Testament
ideal of the righteous man. The gospel writer Matthew calls Joseph a
“just man” in the mold of Psalm 1, according to Benedict: “He is like a
tree, planted beside the flowing waters, constantly bringing forth
fruit. The flowing waters, from which he draws nourishment, naturally
refer to the living word of God, into which he sinks the roots of his
being. God’s will is not a law imposed on him from without, it is ‘joy.’
For him the law is simply Gospel, good news, because he reads it with a
personal, loving openness to God and in this way learns to understand
and live it from deep within.”
This quality of personal righteousness is what led Joseph initially
to seek a private divorce from Mary, rather than make a public example
of her, after learning she had become pregnant. According to St. John
Chrysostom, the penalty for adultery was not only a nasty public
divorce, but also death. “But Joseph remitted both, as though living
above the Law,” Chrysostom writes. In this, Chrysostom sees an
anticipation of how Christ’s saving grace will transcend the law: “For
as the sun lightens up the world, before he shews his rays, so Christ
before He was born caused many wonders to be seen.”
It is this personal righteousness—this commitment to the law in
love—that makes Joseph “inwardly prepared” for the “unexpected and
humanly speaking incredible news” that is announced to him in a dream,
according to Benedict.
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